Bryan Sappington

*Editor’s Note: CC Biz Buzz is a new monthly column series that will feature insightful commentary from a member of the Columbia College Robert W. Plaster School of Business faculty.

Arguably the best part about working in higher education is watching students graduate and walk out into the world to start their new adventure! They have put in the time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears. Many have their first job offer and an idealistic picture of how life will go in this perfect new position. And that is what we want for them; the perfect experience. Unfortunately, this is not always their reality.

Recently, I’ve heard several students describe a less-than-perfect start to their professional careers. Reflecting on these stories, there was one common theme that rose to the surface: conflict.

Just seeing that word brings back a flood of uncomfortable memories and life lessons from my past, and I’m sure it is the same for you. Hopefully, you can also remember how you eventually resolved the issues and learned valuable lessons that served you well later in life. But what stands out about these recent stories is how they prefer to find a new position rather than attempt to address the conflict.

While this is an incredibly small sample size, I would argue that this is becoming much more common. There are a lot of factors that we can point to that make sense of this reaction. Basic interpersonal communication has changed drastically with the rise in social media usage, and we know that younger generations have fewer face-to-face interactions than in the past. Add in the effects of social isolation over the past couple of years during the pandemic, and it is easy to see that conflict management skills may be lacking. With employers struggling to fill entry-level positions, it seems relatively easy for a young employee to find something else quickly. There are many other reasons we could point to, but to sum it up, it is just easier for them to avoid the conflict and start over somewhere else. This is a problem.

It is a problem for the employer because we now have a vacant position and need to hire someone else. It also means we have missed an opportunity to see how something in our work environment or company culture led to the employee leaving. Or, even worse, there was just a miscommunication or misunderstanding that could have easily been cleared up.

It is problem for the employee because they have missed an opportunity to learn and grow through the experience and will likely continue to avoid conflict in the future. They have missed an opportunity to stay in a position they initially thought was perfect for them. They have also missed their chance to affect change within that organization.

So, what can we do? We need to start by understanding that conflict is good! It shows that members of a team are passionate about what they do and approach problems in diverse and creative ways. By bringing these different ideas to the table, we get a much better result than if we all thought the same way or just followed one person’s lead. The Tuckman model of team development argues that a team must go through a “storming” phase before it can perform at its most efficient and effective level. When we confront conflict and manage it appropriately, we come out better on the other side.

Employers need to effectively manage their company culture to ensure employees can safely address the conflict they encounter. Establishing trust and open communication early are critical to addressing conflict before it gets out of control. Check in with new employees early and often to show them you care and that you are listening. Empower them to confront the issues they are facing and to learn from their experiences.

However, we must recognize that many of our employees do not have good conflict-management skills and are not comfortable speaking up (remember, this could be their first real position and have not fully learned about your norms and expectations). Team members need to know how to address conflict confidently and appropriately within their specific roles. This starts with training and skill development. As part of an onboarding process, consider leading a team-building activity that intentionally creates conflict within the group which must be overcome to reach an objective. By doing this in a well-controlled and safe environment, participants will learn how to interact and communicate effectively with each other. Additionally, this provides an opportunity to share resources in case your staff needs help addressing a bigger issue.

We are so accustomed to the negative connotation of conflict that we forget overcoming it is what truly shapes us and allows us to become the best versions of ourselves. Providing the knowledge, skills, and a safe environment can make all the difference in helping your employees stay with your team and reach their potential. They need your help more now than ever!

Bryan Sappington teaches Organizational Behavior and Foundations courses as adjunct faculty member with Columbia College. As an academic advising coordinator in the Robert W. Plaster School of Business, he advises business students, assists them in navigating their degree requirements and provides guidance on important aspects of their program. He holds an MBA from Columbia College.